Most of the big Greek popular festivals have a religious basis, so they’re observed in accordance with the Orthodox calendar: this means that Easter, for example, can fall as much as three weeks to either side of the Western festival.
On top of the main religious festivals, there are scores of local festivities, or paniyíria, celebrating the patron saint of the village church. Some of the more important are listed here; the paramoní, or eve of the festival, is often as significant as the day itself, and many of the events are actually celebrated on the night before. If you show up on the morning of the date given you may find that you have missed most of the music, dancing and drinking. With some 330-odd possible saints’ days, though, you’re unlikely to travel round for long without stumbling on something. Local tourist offices should be able to fill you in on events in their area.
Easter is by far the most important festival of the Greek year. It is an excellent time to be in Greece, both for the beautiful and moving religious ceremonies and for the days of feasting and celebration which follow. If you make for a smallish village, you may well find yourself an honorary member for the period of the festival. This is a busy time for Greek tourists as well as international ones, however, so book ahead: for Easter dates, see Easter.
The first great ceremony takes place on Good Friday evening as the Descent from the Cross is lamented in church. At dusk, the Epitáfios, Christ’s funeral bier, lavishly decorated by the women of the parish, leaves the sanctuary and is paraded solemnly through the streets. Late Saturday evening sees the climax in a majestic Mass to celebrate Christ’s triumphant return. At the stroke of midnight all the lights in each crowded church are extinguished and the congregation plunged into the darkness until the priest lights the candles of the worshippers, intoning “Dévte, lévete Fós” (“Come, take the Light”). The burning candles are carried home through the streets; they are said to bring good fortune to the house if they arrive still burning.
The lighting of the flames is the signal for celebrations to start and the Lent fast to be broken. The traditional greeting, as fireworks and dynamite explode all around you in the street, is Khristós Anésti (“Christ is risen”), to which the response is Alithós Anésti (“Truly He is risen”). On Easter Sunday there’s feasting on roast lamb.
The Greek equivalent of Easter eggs is hard-boiled eggs (painted red on Holy Thursday), which are baked into twisted, sweet bread-loaves (tsourékia) or distributed on Easter Sunday. People rap their eggs against their friends’ eggs, and the owner of the last uncracked egg is considered lucky.
In Greece, everyone gets to celebrate their birthday twice. More important, in fact, than your actual birthday, is the “Name Day” of the saint who bears the same name. If your name isn’t covered, no problem – your party is on All Saints’ Day, eight weeks after Easter. If you learn that it’s an acquaintance’s name day, you wish them Khrónia Pollá (literally, “many years”).
The big name day celebrations (Iannis/Ianna on January 7 or Yioryios on April 23 for example) can involve thousands of people. Any church or chapel bearing the saint’s name will mark the event – some smaller chapels will open just for this one day of the year – while if an entire village is named after the saint, you can almost guarantee a festival. To check out when your name day falls, see sfakia-crete.com.
January 1: New Year’s Day (Protokhroniá) In Greece this is the feast day of Áyios Vassílios (St Basil). The traditional New Year greeting is “Kalí Khroniá”.
January 6: Epiphany (Theofánia/Tón Fóton) Marks the baptism of Jesus as well as the end of the twelve days of Christmas. Baptismal fonts, lakes, rivers and seas are blessed, especially harbours (such as Pireás), where the priest traditionally casts a crucifix into the water, with local youths competing for the privilege of recovering it.
Carnival (Apokriátika) Festivities span three weeks, climaxing during the seventh weekend before Easter. Pátra Carnival, with a chariot parade and costume parties, is one of the largest and most outrageous in the Mediterranean. Interesting, too, are the boúles or masked revels which take place around Macedonia (particularly at Náoussa), Thrace (Xánthi), and the outrageous Goat Dance on Skýros in the Sporades. The Ionian islands, especially Kefaloniá, are also good for carnival, as is Ayiássos on Lésvos, while Athenians celebrate by going around hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers.
Clean Monday (Kathará Dheftéra) The day after Carnival ends and the first day of Lent, 48 days before Easter, marks the start of fasting and is traditionally spent picnicking and flying kites.
March 25: Independence Day and the feast of the Annunciation (Evangelismós) Both a religious and a national holiday, with, on the one hand, military parades and dancing to celebrate the beginning of the revolt against Ottoman rule in 1821, and, on the other, church services to honour the news given to Mary that she was to become the Mother of Christ. There are major festivities on Tínos, Ýdhra and any locality with a monastery or church named Evangelístria or Evangelismós.
Easter (Páskha: April 15, 2012; May 5, 2013; April 20, 2014; April 12, 2015) The most important festival of the Greek year . The island of Ýdhra, with its alleged 360 churches and monasteries, is the prime Easter resort; other famous Easter celebrations are held at Corfu, Pyrgí on Híos, Ólymbos on Kárpathos and St John’s monastery on Pátmos, where on Holy Thursday the abbot washes the feet of twelve monks in the village square, in imitation of Christ doing the same for his disciples. Good Friday and Easter Monday are also public holidays.
April 23: The feast of St George (Áyios Yeóryios) St George, the patron of shepherds, is honoured with a big rural celebration, with much feasting and dancing at associated shrines and towns. If it falls during Lent, festivities are postponed until the Monday after Easter.
May 1: May Day (Protomayiá) The great urban holiday when townspeople traditionally make for the countryside to picnic and fly kites, returning with bunches of wild flowers. Wreaths are hung on their doorways or balconies until they are burnt in bonfires on St John’s Eve (June 23). There are also large demonstrations by the Left for Labour Day.
May 21: Feast of St Constantine and St Helen (Áyios Konstandínos & Ayía Eléni) Constantine, as emperor, championed Christianity in the Byzantine Empire; St Helen was his mother. There are firewalking ceremonies in certain Macedonian villages; elsewhere celebrated rather more conventionally as the name day for two of the more popular Christian names in Greece.
Whit Monday (Áyio Pnévma) Fifty days after Easter, sees services to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit to the assembled disciples. Many young Greeks take advantage of the long weekend, marking the start of summer, to head for the islands.
June 29 & 30: SS Peter and Paul (Áyios Pétros and Áyios Pávlos) The joint feast of two of the more widely celebrated name days is on June 29. Celebrations often run together with those for the Holy Apostles (Áyii Apóstoli), the following day.
July 17: Feast of St Margaret (Ayía Marína) A big event in rural areas, as she’s an important protector of crops.
July 20: Feast of the Prophet Elijah (Profítis Ilías) Widely celebrated at the countless hilltop shrines of Profítis Ilías. The most famous is on Mount Taïyetos, near Spárti, with an overnight vigil.
July 26: St Paraskevi (Ayía Paraskeví) Celebrated in parishes or villages bearing that name, especially in Epirus.
August 6: Transfiguration of the Saviour (Metamórfosis toú Sotíros) Another excuse for celebrations, particularly at Khristós Ráhon village on Ikaría, and at Plátanos on Léros. On Hálki the date is marked by messy food fights with flour, eggs and squid ink.
August 15: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Apokímisis tís Panayías) This is the day when people traditionally return to their home village, and the heart of the holiday season, so in many places there will be no accommodation available on any terms. Even some Greeks will resort to sleeping in the streets at the great pilgrimage to Tínos; also major festivities at Páros, at Ayiássos on Lésvos, and at Ólymbos on Kárpathos.
August 29: Beheading of John the Baptist (Apokefálisis toú Prodhrómou) Popular pilgrimages and celebrations at Vrykoúnda on Kárpathos.
September 8: Birth of the Virgin Mary (Yénnisis tís Panayías) Sees special services in churches dedicated to the event, and a double cause for rejoicing on Spétses where they also celebrate the anniversary of the battle of the straits of Spétses. Elsewhere, there’s a pilgrimage of childless women to the monastery at Tsambíka, Rhodes.
September 14: Exaltation of the Cross (Ípsosis toú Stavroú) A last major summer festival, keenly observed on Hálki.
September 24: Feast of St John the Divine (Áyios Ioánnis Theológos) Observed on Níssyros and Pátmos, where at the saint’s monastery there are solemn, beautiful liturgies the night before and early in the morning.
October 26: Feast of St Demetrios (Áyios Dhimítrios) Another popular name day, particularly celebrated in Thessaloníki, of which he is the patron saint. In rural areas the new wine is traditionally broached on this day, a good excuse for general inebriation.
October 28: Óhi Day A national holiday with parades, folk dancing and speeches to commemorate prime minister Metaxas’ one-word reply to Mussolini’s 1940 ultimatum: Ohi! (“No!”).
November 8: Feast of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel (Mihaïl and Gavriïl, or tón Taxiárhon) Marked by rites at the numerous churches named after them, particularly at the rural monastery of Taxiárhis on Sými, and the big monastery of Mandamádhos, Lésvos.
December 6: Feast of St Nicholas (Áyios Nikólaos) The patron saint of seafarers, who has many chapels dedicated to him.
December 25 & 26: Christmas (Khristoúyenna) If less all-encompassing than Greek Easter, Christmas is still an important religious feast, one that increasingly comes with all the usual commercial trappings: decorations, gifts and alarming outbreaks of plastic Santas on rooftops.
December 31: New Year’s Eve (Paramoní Protohroniá) As on the other twelve days of Christmas, a few children still go door-to-door singing traditional carols, receiving money in return. Adults tend to sit around playing cards, often for money. A special baked loaf, the vassilópitta, in which a coin is concealed to bring its finder good luck throughout the year, is cut at midnight.